Time tasted Nancy & Lawrence Durrell in Corfu.
In early April 1938, Nancy and Larry boarded the train in Paris and headed south once more. Nancy was excited at the prospect of returning to Corfu and seeing the family again. The beginning of the year had been hard for both of them: "sad and difficult days," in Larry's words, and after eight months of city life, they were more than ready to let the island work its summer magic. In spite of the fractures in their relationship, both were making strides with their work. Larry had continued to consolidate links with writers whose opinion he valued, such as T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, The Black Book was about to be published by Jack Kahane's Obelisk Press, and two more issues of The Booster had appeared, with another due in April. Nancy meanwhile had finally broken through and achieved a degree of recognition as an artist in her own right within the Villa Seurat group. "A PERSON" at last.
It was Henry [Miller] who first singled out her painting. He took a keen interest in the visual arts and had begun to create his highly original paintings a few years before. Though painting was for him always a secondary activity, he brought his trademark passionate intensity to the work. While in Paris, Nancy mostly did watercolors--probably because they were more portable than oils. She was painting "made-up things" at this time and, she said, "they were very distinctly not like anyone else's." A poem they had been reading and which had a particular meaning for Henry inspired one of her few oils: a forest fire in vibrant reds and purples, with abstract animals racing through the flames. Henry's response was electric. "Gee," he told her, and Nancy felt his whole attitude towards her change in an instant, "I never thought you could do anything like this! The things of yours I'd seen before I didn't think much of them" (praise with a distinct sting in the tail, but Nancy seems not to have minded), "but gee, this is marvelous!" Overwhelmed by his enthusiasm, she promptly gave him the painting, which he hung over his desk and showed off to everybody who came by. His praisegave Nancy what she had longed for all along: the feeling that she really belonged to the group on her own terms. Now she was in the club, "because Henry kept wagging his head in his very sweet way and saying, 'Gee, that is marvelous!'"--her rendition of Henry's New York accent consisted of simply sticking "Gee" before every phrase. For once, Larry didn't mind her getting the attention because it was acceptable for her to be an artist. And so, in those first months of 1938, she started to believe in herself again.
A painter whose approval carried even more weight was Hans Reichel, a dramatic character who was revered by Henry. According to Nancy, Reichel had an almost sacred place in the Villa Seurat circle; his dedication to his work and his utter disregard for money meant Henry saw him as "inviolate and pure." Nancy regarded him as ancient (he was in his mid forties) and, far from appearing 'inviolate and pure', he reminded her of the child murderer played by Peter Lorre in the film M. He was a shambling, fat, rather drunken figure, 'squat and toad-like and speaking quaint English with a heavy German accent'. He gave an impression of being tragic, pathetic and tremendously overemotional. But this penniless and physically unappealing man created small paintings of astonishing vividness and color, which she deemed 'exquisite', rather in the manner of some Paul Klees--not so surprising, as Reichel had shared a studio with Klee before coming to Paris in 1929. These beautiful watery jewels showed eyes and fishes and flower shapes, all filled with mystery and translucent colors. One phrase of his stuck in her mind as being particularly beautiful and capturing something of what he was trying to achieve: "Two flowers looking mutual in each other's eyes."
According to Nancy, Reichel loathed having to sell any of his paintings, and only did so when driven by absolute desperation. What he liked best was to sit in his tiny room surrounded by his work, only occasionally consenting to be winkled out for a meal: whenever he got the chance he would drink as much as he could. Nancy was amazed and delighted when this strange man singled out one of her unfinished paintings for scrutiny. The piece was more abstract than anything she had attempted before, a peasant woman in a Henry Moore-ish shell-like coil, done in greys and blacks. Reichel regarded it for a long time before pronouncing his verdict. "It is good," he told her in his heavily accented English. "You see, there is a way in here, and there is a way out there also." She never forgot what she called the "savor of generous appreciation" of her paintings as an interesting small world in embryo. And then, as "a salute from one artist to another," he gave her one of his paintings. An early work, it was intensely dark with a moon and a fragment of house. She was delighted, as much by the recognition as by the painting itself, and she took it back to the studio flat overlooking the Parc Montsouris. Larry's reaction came as a shock: he was "absolutely livid" and insisted she return it at once. "I don't know why," she commented, because "he couldn't possibly have been jealous of Reichel. But he didn't like me having anything he didn't have." In fairness to Larry it's also possible that he didn't think a painter as hard up as Reichel should ever give his work away. Anyway, the painting was duly returned, to Nancy's lasting regret.
But the boost to her self-confidence remained and was reinforced by Henry's continuing encouragement. Soon after their return to Corfu, Henry added a message for her to his letter to Larry: "But a word to Nancy, the old gal, who I suppose is 'you' always in the Black Book. Who is this 'you?' Nancy, how are you? ... Will I be seeing you soon? I wonder. But I am happy that we got to know each other finally. You were sprouting like a cauliflower--the last few days in Paris." And he concludes with some advice: "Don't let Larry browbeat you! Give him tit for tat! Incidentally, everybody finds your pictures interesting, original etc." After that, Henry's letters often contained a message for Nancy. And although he complained that "the old girl never writes me," he added that "I think of her always, and wonder how to make her more of a success than she already is." At one time Henry toyed with the idea of a joint exhibition of their work in London. Also, during those first months after their return to Corfu, Larry wrote enthusiastically that Nancy had begun to paint the most astonishing stuff--"So assured of herself that it is wonderful"--though as the summer wore on and visitors arrived she had less and less time for painting. One gets the impression that he was trying to repair the damage of the winter by praising her work, at one time telling Henry that only being with him and his swollen egotism held her back. Yet none of this work remains. All was lost or destroyed in the panic and dislocation of war. Or so I had thought. But, in the Henry Miller archive at the University of California Los Angeles, among a pile of letters from Larry to Henry, I found a folded piece of cartridge paper with an unfinished sketch in bold colors of a peasant woman standing in front of two cows. Across the bottom he has written, "All these I found among her throw-outs--a hopeless ass (unofficial) about destroying her own stuff!" Is it any good? I find it impossible to judge, but considering it was an unfinished and rejected sketch, it offers a tantalizing glimpse of what her "good" paintings might have been like. Poor Nancy, how mortified she would have been to think that the only example of her painting to have survived from the 1930s was something she had thrown away.
Looking back on those years before the outbreak of war, Larry gave the impression they had existed in a self-made bubble of almost pre-lapsarian innocence, entirely untouched by the worsening political situation, but their letters tell a different story.
From their very first months in Corfu, Italian expansion was a genuine threat: twelve years earlier the Italians had occupied the island for almost a month, and during that summer of 1935 they seemed to be about to do so again. Mussolini's troops had overrun Abyssinia and, as Larry wrote at the time, if there was any place the Italian leader wanted more than Abyssinia, it was Corfu. Italian bomber planes flew over the town to reconnoiter, and Larry and Nancy, like the rest of the population, were "scared shitless." The League of Nations remained passive in the face of Italian aggression, just as it had when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931. The "peace" between the two great wars was anything but peaceful. For most of the Durrells' Corfu years, Spain was being torn apart by civil war, as savage as such fratricidal conflicts always are. Most English writers took a stand and some, like George Orwell, even joined the fighting.
In 1936, Hitler had moved troops into the Rhineland and by 1938 he was calling for the Sudetenland to be annexed as well. On 12 March 1938, just a few weeks before Nancy and Larry left Paris, Austria was absorbed into the Third Reich, yet another contravention of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. By the summer, the German military machine seemed unstoppable, and the proper response was by no means as obvious as it seems in retrospect. In France and England, those in favor of appeasing aggression were in the ascendant. "No more Passchendaeles!" was a popular sentiment. Later that same year, as German pressure on the Sudetenland increased, President Roosevelt made it clear that America would remain neutral in the event of a new European war.
Against this backdrop, Larry's position was clear. On their first trip to Athens in 1936 he had mocked the Germans who were infesting the Acropolis and filling everything with their "fumphen sthinekel language, just like a lot of men imitating trains." But he was neither an appeaser nor a hawk. He deliberately retreated into his "Heraldic Universe," which he described as the proper place for that "queer fish" the artist to inhabit. It was his belief that writers who felt driven to engage politically had confused the inner struggle with the outer one. He said that politics was "an art that dealt in averages," whereas the artist was driven by "his self isolation and the dislocation of the societal instinct." Nancy sympathized with this position; she never expressed anything but the vaguest political opinions, since she was not one to pontificate on anything unless she felt well-informed. Larry's instincts were essentially conservative, and to some extent this is true of Nancy also, but her elitist love of excellence was tempered by an instinctive sympathy for the underdog, so simple political loyalties were alien to her.
They might try to distance themselves from events on the world stage, but they were anything but oblivious to what Larry termed "the impending cataclysm." It was impossible to ignore the fact that something terrible was going to happen at some stage in the future--but what or when was anyone's guess. People as diverse as George Orwell and Henry Miller were clear that the world they knew was about to be swept away, and no one had any notion of what might take its place. They were staring into a dark tunnel, with no certainty of light at the other end. France and Britain might be convulsed by bloody revolution, as Russia had been twenty years before; or torn to pieces by civil war like Spain; or, perhaps most likely, the German Empire could come to dominate Europe entirely. With the future so uncertain and so dark, it is perhaps not surprising that people turned to fortune-tellers and seers, like the astrologer Conrad Moricand, who had such an influence on Henry and who provided detailed horoscopes for both Larry and Nancy. All that could be predicted with confidence was that their Mediterranean idyll could not last. And so they made the most of it. As Larry said at the time, the continuing threat of war sharpened the minute "so that each tick of time going through is time tasted; unbearably sweet even if trivial things and idiots intervene." But until those trivial things and idiots destroyed their fragile equilibrium, they intended to devote themselves to what they believed in: creating lasting works of art and having a roaring good time.
Back on the island again, Nancy was delighted to be reunited with the family. While they had been in Paris, Mother Durrell had shifted her younger children to the third of their Corfu villas, Villa Cressida, the snow-white villa of My Family and Other Animals. Idyllic in retrospect, the Corfu period was, in Nancy's opinion, a mixed blessing for Larry's siblings. Gerry had no proper education--though Theodore's mentoring probably more than made up for this--and as Nancy was so keenly aware of the failings of her own schooling she didn't like to see others missing out. Margo had received no education of any kind since 1935, when she was sixteen. Worse, she had begun to suffer from some kind of glandular complaint that caused massive weight gain--putting on "a pound a day" according to Larry. She had been packed off to England, where they tried to figure out what was wrong with her, but she remained plump, with the result that the usual self-consciousness of the teenage girl was magnified tenfold, and for a while she was so embarrassed by her ballooning figure that she refused even to join the family for meals. But it was Leslie who fared worst. He had always been the butt of Larry's mocking humor and vitriol, and a damaged eardrum, legacy of fights at school in Dulwich, prevented him from swimming with the others. Instead he hung out with the local field police, whom Nancy described with hauteur as "a very low category of person": young men who tramped about the countryside with rifles over their shoulders but no very clear idea of what they were looking for. As she said, "it wasn't much of an existence" for a twenty-year-old, though at the time Leslie would probably have disagreed. His consuming passion was weapons, and he had three or four different guns that he was always polishing and cleaning. When he got angry with Larry--a frequent occurrence, as Larry would needle him mercilessly, telling him what an idiot he was and how he'd wrecked his life--Leslie often turned his gun on him. Having suffered himself, he hated to see Nancy on the receiving end of Larry's verbal battering and took on the role of her champion. Sometimes when they were quarrelling Leslie rushed into the room with his gun aimed at Larry and roared that he'd shoot him if he didn't stop. "And," added Nancy thoughtfully, "sometimes I really thought he would."
When I started on this memoir Nancy had been dead for more than a quarter of a century and Larry for nearly twenty years. Theodore, Henry, Anais, Larry's siblings--all were dead. I assumed that every link with pre-war Corfu had been severed, but I was wrong. Nancy always referred to summer 1938 as "the summer of the dancers" and one of those dancers is still very much alive. In March 2010, I took the train to the north-western tip of Devon to meet her, and over a thoroughly enjoyable visit gained a fresh perspective on a period I had previously only seen through the lens of Nancy's memory.
During the winter of 1937-8 Larry had met a young woman called Veronica Tester at the Players' Club in London. He was taken with her at once--hardly surprising, since as well as being an accomplished dancer and acrobat, Veronica was highly intelligent and widely read. On a later trip to London he met her friend Dorothy Stevenson, the daughter of an Australian bishop and an excellent classical dancer who was later offered a coveted place with the Ballets Russes. Enchanted by their mix of showbiz glamor and intellectual curiosity, he invited the two women to visit Corfu in the summer. When she received fifty pounds for a twenty-first birthday present, that is what Veronica did. Dorothy followed soon after. Veronica remembered her summer months in Corfu as an enchanted time. She was impressed by Nancy, who welcomed them warmly even though she had never met them before, and took care of all the practical arrangements. The days in Kalami followed a simple pattern: they all rose early, at about six o'clock, and went for a swim. After breakfast they worked through the morning--Larry writing, Nancy painting and the girls doing their dance exercises. A simple lunch was followed by a siesta and then a late-afternoon swim. They ate supper on the flat rock beside the house while the light faded and the Albanian coastline was swallowed by the darkness, talking, listening to music, enjoying the precious moment--magical, never-to-be forgotten evenings.
As the summer progressed they made the trek over to the deserted beach on the west coast of the island. Veronica went with Larry in the boat, while Nancy and Dorothy took a donkey with the supplies. Here they slept on the beach and lived a life of almost mythic simplicity: they were woken in the mornings by the shepherd and shepherdess who wound their way down the hillside with their flocks; they danced naked on the edge of the sea, drew patterns in the sand and sat round a fire in the evenings, while Larry brought the Greek myths to life and sketched out the germ of his idea for the multi-layered novel he was planning to write. His conversation was intoxicating and seductive, but in spite of the rumors that grew up around their presence on the island Veronica was adamant that there had been not a hint of sexual engagement between them. And through all this Nancy seemed kindly and practical, but reserved and always a little remote. Veronica and I talked on. What had that summer been like for my mother, she wanted to know. "Well," I said, "she had felt excluded, a little left out. It was an uncomfortable time for her." "Yes," Veronica replied, recognizing the truth of this at once. "I always wondered." They had admired the way she coped; they thought she and Larry complemented each other and were well suited, but then she added, apparently contradicting herself, she had felt the presence of the two women that summer had acted as a safety valve. Still, she said, they had never felt they knew her at all.
What about the trip that she and Nancy made to Athens in October, after Dorothy had returned to London, I asked. In one of his letters to Henry, Larry describes being alone in Kalami while "Nancy and V are somewhere in Athens, bless them, probably celebrating their escape from the tyrant." In Athens, surely she and Nancy got to know each other a little more, but Veronica was perplexed. She remembered Larry being with them, even when in Athens. I have puzzled over this anomaly, and two possibilities occur to me: either they made two trips to Athens, one with Larry and one without, or else the memory of his personality was so indelibly printed on that whole summer that it had become impossible to imagine him not being there. The inconsistency is salutary, I think, though at first I was keen to iron it out. Nancy never mentioned the trip to Athens, but somewhere between the written evidence and the vivid personal memories the events of that summer fracture and shimmer, forever out of reach. So many versions, so many stories, flow from those simple summer days.
Nancy's memory of those months was less rosy. She bore no ill will towards the two dancers. In fact, she and Veronica met up again after the war and might have become friends except that Veronica was moving to Northern Ireland and they lost touch. Nancy's verdict was typically understated: "1938 wasn't a good summer for me. Larry was being very pesky. He loved having a flock of young girls. It was wonderful for him to dance about pretending to be Pan, dancing naked on the beach. And Veronica did the most wonderful acrobatics." When they slept under the stars on the western beach he placed himself between the two girls, with Nancy kept at a distance. In the circumstances, pesky seems quite mild.
As we talked on, Veronica indicated that she had in fact been aware that all was not well between husband and wife. She asked me if Nancy's childhood had been unhappy, saying she had got the impression that she'd had negative experiences in the east of England. Yes, I told her. Her family was not happy. I thought so, said Veronica, and repeated what she remembered of Larry's opinion: "Just the kind of depressed Englishness I can't stand" had been his take on the emotional baggage Nancy was still carrying from her childhood. When Veronica saw them again, in London the following winter, she noted how Nancy was relegated to the role of skivvy, preparing meals and clearing up while the literary men and the unattached young women enjoyed the talk and the laughter. Being a canny young woman, Veronica decided the life of a literary wife was not for her--a chilling echo of Nancy's reaction to the faded and depressed artists' wives she had encountered during her time as an object of desire at art school. Now, although her financial independence made some difference, she was in danger of sliding into that dismal situation herself.
Then, in the autumn of 1938, as Europe hovered on the brink of catastrophe with the Munich Crisis and her relations with Larry had still not recovered from the dramas of the previous months, Nancy made one of the strangest decisions of her life: she wanted a child. Larry, not surprisingly, was baffled, as indicated in a letter to Henry: "Bored to death by uncertainty: now of course, Nancy wants to have a child, the slut ... What sort of animal vegetable mineral is a woman's mind?"
Looking back, Nancy struggled to find the answer. "We've got to the summer in Corfu after Larry's and my first winter in Paris," she wrote, "when the unhappiness of our marriage has obviously shown--had become really restrictive to me. I had made an attempt to get a temporary respite which made everything worse afterwards." As she herself wrote at this time, "there seemed to be no trust, no love" and in brackets she has added "what is love?--no loving kindness between us." And yet, not only did she remain with him, but they were still inseparable. "What kept us together?" she asks. "For if it takes two to quarrel it equally takes two to stay inseparable, as we were supposed to be--and were in fact." She was coming to regard Larry as "disloyal and traitorous, dissembling, domineering and in many other ways impossible to combine with satisfactorily," and so wondered "why then did I deliberately decide I wanted a child with him?"
Good question. In retrospect it seemed as if her marriage had already turned into a battleground, the second European war was imminent and their money was running out. The timing could not have been worse. Nonetheless the reasons for her overwhelming urge to have a child are perhaps not so hard to find. Knowing Larry as well as she did, it is unlikely that she saw a baby as a way to fix a failing relationship. Probably their relationship did not at the time seem as hopeless as it did in retrospect. Once they were back in Corfu there was so much they both loved: his family and the island forged bonds that must have felt unbreakable. But, more than anything else, I think she was simply lonely, and wanted something --someone--to love. Her first impulse towards Larry had been a maternal one: his baby talk during their first weeks together elicited her instinctive love of nurturing the helpless. Now the needy child had become "the tyrant" and her mothering instincts were thwarted. She wanted a baby.
The immediate effect was on her attitude to sex, and this became for her the most relaxed and enjoyable period sexually of their married life. "I couldn't have enough of it," she said, which reinforces the idea that her memory of "all love gone" did not apply to this period after all, since she would never have felt voracious desire for a man she no longer loved. As a result of her new enthusiasm, Larry stopped being importunate; in fact, as far as she could remember he failed take full advantage of her active enthusiasm. She was slightly disappointed after all his reproaches at her passivity. Passive no longer, she was happy to relax and enjoy herself.
Like much else about her parenting, my mother's take on sex education was quite unlike that dished out by the mothers of my friends. When I was sixteen, a time when my friends were being told (this was the mid 1960s) to save themselves for Mr. Right and never to be "cheap" ("Men won't respect you if you go all the way" was the usual threat.), Nancy took a different view. One afternoon, in the furnishing fabric department of Heals, our conversation drifted from the relative merits of William Morris or modern Swedish design to the "how far should you go?" debate. She said firmly and clearly that not to make love when you were in love was selfish and wrong, which drew the attention of our fellow shoppers. "Let's continue this at home," she said with a smile. But as so often with Nancy, what might have been a straightforward green light came with a subtle caveat. Being in love was critical, and making love was not to be confused with just having sex. Once back at the flat she said with equal clarity, "Making love when you're in love, and just having sex with someone is like the difference between Rubinstein playing Chopin on a concert grand and an amateur playing chopsticks on a broken-down old upright." As an image, it was an effective prophylactic. For some time, whenever things started to get steamy her words echoed in my mind, and as I drew breath and contemplated the current youth I was with, "chopsticks on a broken-down old upright" seemed the most likely scenario.
But now, reading what she wrote about that last year before war broke out, I wonder if she was being entirely accurate. It is impossible to know how much in love she was with Larry at this time. Perhaps for her the truth was even simpler: making love when you're not frightened of becoming pregnant, making love when you want to create a new life to love--that, for Nancy, was the secret of sexual happiness.
And so we come to the end of her spoken memoir. Her voice captured on the tape recorder, with my father prompting her as best he could, Nancy said thoughtfully, "It's funny that at the moment I can't think about what really happened [in the summer of 1938] except for Veronica and Dorothy, who stayed with us. I can't think of what else we did that summer particularly. Perhaps there wasn't anything very particular about it. We just went on our boats and lived our lives."
With those words the final tape ends. Though Edward suggested from time to time that they carry on, in the last few months she couldn't summon the energy, or was simply too focused on her battle to beat her illness, to continue with her reminiscences. Which is a loss, of course, but as an epitaph to the Corfu days it is singularly fitting, all the simple ease and contentment of their summer idylls caught in those last few words: "we just went on our boats and lived our lives."
(1) This text is an extract from Joanna Hodgkin Amateurs in Eden (Virago Press, London 2012. ISBN 978-1-84408-793-8.) I am grateful to the publishers for their permission to reprint and to Karl Orend who commissioned this appearance in Nexus. The book can be ordered from Amazon.com. See also <www.amateursineden.com>.
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|Publication:||Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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